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NASCAR: It's a double feature this weekend at Michigan

NASCAR: It's a double feature this weekend at Michigan
Image via: Wiki Commons.

This week, the NASCAR Cup Series heads for the high banks of Michigan for the Firekeepers Casino 400. This will be NASCAR's second doubleheader of the season as they continue to draw closer and closer to the playoffs. Earlier in the summer, NASCAR announced the final races before the playoffs and in those number of races they announced that they will be running two doubleheaders. One this Saturday and Sunday at Michigan and another in a few weeks at Dover. We saw a double feature race earlier this year at Pocono, so it will be interesting to see here in a different set of circumstances at Michigan. This track is a two and half mile oval that races similarly to a track like Auto Club as they both have plenty of grooves and lanes to run on. With this aero package it should be interesting to see if the racing is similar to last year's.

It was announced this week that NASCAR would unveil their last batch of races for the remainder of 2020 and for the most part the season remains pretty much the same. Richmond will get back one of it's races that was cancelled and Phoenix Raceway will remain the season finale. NASCAR had made it clear that they were hoping to keep their playoff races intact and luckily they were able to. We will still get to see Martinsville decide who gets to race in the final four, and we will still see Bristol in the playoffs as well. The only question that remains now is will these races have fans? I have a feeling that at tracks like Las Vegas we will see no fans but on tracks like Texas and Bristol or Richmond, I have a feeling they will be much more lenient. Only time will tell as everything remains fluid.

It was announced on Thursday that Erik Jones will not return to the #20 car for Joe Gibbs in 2021. This clears a path for the next Gibbs driver in the pipeline, Christopher Bell. The writing had been on the wall for a while as Toyota and Joe Gibbs had too many drivers and not enough seats to fit all of them. The same thing happened back in 2017 when it was announced that Erik Jones would be replacing Matt Kenseth in the same car. While I hate to see Jones lose his ride, I think it will only be temporary as there are a bunch of good rides available. Besides, you have to feel as if he is now the favorite to replace Jimmie Johnson next season after Brad Keselowski announced he will be back at Penske next season.

Another headline that was announced this week was the changes that will be made to how the field will start at the Daytona Roval. NASCAR also announced Thursday that they would use weighted metrics to decide who starts on the front-row. The formula will consist of three criteria including, finishing position in the previous race, position in owner points, and fastest lap time in the race. None of this makes any sense to the average viewer. In fact, most of the drivers I would imagine don't understand it either. There were probably better ways of doing this including actual practice and qualifying. I can understand that NASCAR is trying to do everything in their power to make sure drivers are limited at the racetrack, but this is becoming more and more unnecessary by the week.

As I mentioned earlier, Erik Jones will be looking for a ride next season. What better way to prove you belong than by winning races and that's what I predict he will do this weekend at Michigan. This is a track that is special to him considering he is a native Michigander. While he hasn't had the best finishes here over the past few years, I will say he has been running well. Despite a lackluster 24th place finish at New Hampshire, before that he had rattled off back-to-back top tens with a fifth at Texas and a sixth at Kansas. I look for him to get back in the grove and get his third career win and leave a big impression on all the teams looking for a driver next season. Look for Erik Jones to win one of the races this weekend.

The other driver I have winning this weekend is Joey Logano. On Saturday, Logano will roll off first to begin the weekend. This is a track where Joey has been stellar at as well. He has won here four times including back in 2013 in a race that put Logano back on the map and began his reign at Penske. I look for him to get win #4 this weekend at Michigan.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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